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LaGrange resident honored for conservation legacy


Long-time LaGrange resident and retired conservationist Dona Hunter was recently named the 2013 recipient of the Al Smith Watershed Stewardship Award at the 6th Annual Watershed Council meeting hosted by the Friends of the St. Joe River (FotSJR) on March 18 in Sturgis, Mich.

The award is a prestigious honor for volunteers and conservation professionals who do their work in the St. Joseph River Watershed, which encompasses all or parts of 15 counties in Indiana and Michigan. In an emotional exchange, Hunter accepted the award from FotSJR Board President Matt Meersman, as 85 in attendance applauded in appreciation.

Hunter retired from the LaGrange County Soil and Water Conservation District in April 2012 after working for the district nearly 27 years. She served as district coordinator (department head) for most of that time. In her time of service, Hunter helped the district to develop and carry out a nationally recognized and award winning program of environmental education, elevating concern for natural resources conservation to a county wide priority.

Current LaGrange Conservation District Administrator Martin Franke nominated his former boss for the award, which was established by the FotSJR Board of Directors in 2012 to honor individuals who display a passion for the health of the watershed. The award is named in honor of FotSJR founder Al Smith, who worked tirelessly to improve the St. Joseph River. According to Franke, “Hunter helped to spearhead and maintain a multimillion-dollar grant program for watershed planning and management, including significant installation of best management practices within the rural, agricultural LaGrange County community. This resulted in statistically substantiated improvement in surface and subsurface water quality, and a marked reduction in erosion and sedimentation in the LaGrange County area.”

Hunter expressed the honor she felt as the award’s recipient, stating, “It is hard for me to accept the award for just myself, because of the many people in LaGrange County who have worked along with me to begin seeing an improvement in the water quality here. I have such great respect for so many people who are working diligently to improve and protect the water quality in the St. Joseph River and to be honored with this award means more to me than I can ever express.”

In addition to her work with the conservation district, Hunter has served in various positions with the Indiana Association of Soil and Water Conservation Districts, the St. Joseph River Basin Commission, the Northern Indiana Envirothon Committee, the Wood-Land-Lakes RC&D Education Committee, the Board of the Northern Indiana Conservation Camp, and as board secretary for the Friends of the St. Joe Association. Over the years she also served on various interagency committees and task forces focusing on environmental and conservation concerns and challenges. “Dona spent a quarter-century pouring all her energy into efforts to conserve natural resources, raise public awareness, and improve the environment in the St. Joseph River Basin,” Franke summarized.